Obama Vetoes Saudi 9/11 Legislation, Opening Override Battle

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President Barack Obama attends a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel on Sept. 19, 2016, in New York City.

Photographer: Anthony Behar-Pool/Getty Images
  • Measure passed unopposed, risking first Obama veto override
  • Enactment would anger Saudi Arabia, key U.S. Middle East ally

President Barack Obama vetoed legislation that would allow families of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia, setting the stage for a fight that may end with the first veto override of his presidency.

The measure "would upset longstanding international principles regarding sovereign immunity, putting in place rules that, if applied globally, could have serious implications for U.S. national interests," the White House said Friday in a three-page veto message to the Senate. The statement didn’t cite Saudi Arabia by name.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to hold an override vote next week, and House Speaker Paul Ryan says there is enough support in his chamber to overturn the veto. 

"The Senate will consider it as soon as practicable in this work period," David Popp, a spokesman for McConnell, said in a statement after the veto.

Even so, some lawmakers are having second thoughts about the legislation, which was passed by voice votes in both chambers over vigorous objections by the Saudi government.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas said in a letter to fellow Republicans that he opposes a veto override.

"My primary concern is that this bill increases the risk posed to American military and intelligence personnel, diplomats and others serving our country around the world" because it may lead to legal action against them in foreign courts, Thornberry said.

The measure carries significant emotional weight; the House sent the bill to Obama just two days ahead of the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The absence of public opposition underscores the political appeal of the idea and the challenge Obama faces in drawing enough congressional support to sustain his veto.

"Members think that families should have their day in court," Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, said Thursday, although she said some of the concerns raised by the White House are legitimate. "This is difficult."

Democrats and Republicans swiftly criticized Obama for vetoing the measure.

“This is a disappointing decision that will be swiftly and soundly overturned in Congress. I believe both parties will come together next week to make JASTA the law of the land," Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate and a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement, using an acronym for the measure. "If the Saudis did nothing wrong, they should not fear this legislation. If they were culpable in 9/11, they should be held accountable."

“It’s disappointing the president chose to veto legislation unanimously passed by Congress and overwhelmingly supported by the American people," John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican whip and a co-sponsor, said in a statement.

Officials at the Saudi embassy in Washington weren’t immediately available for comment.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, in a statement, called Obama’s veto "shameful" and said he would sign such legislation if he were elected president. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said in April during the primary race that she supported the legislation co-sponsored by Schumer.

EU Protest

Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East that already has a fraught relationship with the Obama administration, has worked behind the scenes to fight the measure. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said this week that the Saudi government has warned that enacting the bill would cause a "significant change" in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The administration has also heard complaints about the bill from the European Union, which warned in a letter to the State Department that if the measure becomes law, U.S. diplomats and corporate executives could face retaliation in overseas courts.

The Obama administration has argued to Congress that the legislation would set an international precedent that risks exposing the U.S. government and American soldiers to lawsuits or other legal action by foreign governments.

"More than one member of Congress has indicated they are uneasy about the impact of this legislation," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.  

Sovereign Immunity

The bill would carve out an exception to sovereign immunity -- the legal doctrine that protects foreign governments from lawsuits -- if a plaintiff claims to have suffered injury in the U.S. from state-sponsored terrorism.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who perpetrated the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi citizens. Long-classified portions of a congressional inquiry into the attacks that were released in July found that the hijackers may have had assistance from Saudis connected to their government. The Saudi government has denied culpability.

Saudi officials have said enactment of the law could lead them to sell off the kingdom’s U.S. Treasury debt and other American assets, which totaled $750 billion, the officials told U.S. lawmakers and others in the government, according to the New York Times. The Saudi government held $117 billion in U.S. Treasury debt in March, according to Treasury figures obtained by Bloomberg. The kingdom may have additional holdings not included in the data on deposit with the New York Federal Reserve Bank, in entities in third countries, or through positions in derivatives.

The administration may be able to build support to avert an override of Obama’s veto, particularly if the White House can delay that vote until after the November election. 

Passing the bill by voice vote means there is no record of individual lawmakers’ positions on the measure. Overriding a veto requires a recorded vote in support from two-thirds of the lawmakers in each chamber.

Obama has served the longest period without a veto override of any president in more than a century.

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